OTTAWA—Canada’s military has changed how it trains soldiers for overseas deployments, with more focus on ethical issues, cultural differences and addressing human rights violations — all resulting from the fallout of its mishandling of child abuse reports in Afghanistan.
CAF Members in Afghanistan, AP File Photo
The defence department on Tuesday released the results of a long-awaited investigation examining the response of the Canadian military to reports of sexual abuse of boys by Afghan soldiers and interpreters.
The board of inquiry report — almost eight years in the making — concludes that at no time did commanders order troops to turn a blind eye to suspected abuse.
But it does note that the military could have acted on the abuse of minors in 2006 but didn’t because of breakdowns in communications between soldiers in the field and commanders.
Instead, the military took action only after a soldier told the Toronto Star in 2008 that he had witnessed abuse. Other stories said soldiers had been told by commanders to ignore incidents of sexual abuse.
Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff, said he’s confident that soldiers would take action today if confronted with allegations or evidence of abuse.
“A soldier would be able to take a pro-active role, whether that is reporting or whether it’s an actual intervention,” Vance told the Star Tuesday.
Indeed, he’s given specific orders to Canadian soldiers now deployed in northern Iraq to report any violation of Canadian or international law. That includes the use of child soldiers, torture, inhuman treatment and sexual assault of children and other vulnerable populations, according to an excerpt of the directive obtained by the Star.
The 107-page report released Tuesday confirms that Canadian soldiers witnessed or suspected that sex acts were taking place between Afghan National Security Forces and children.
“These reports include incidents of oral sex and genital fondling under clothing,” according to the report.
There was one report of Canadian Forces (CF) medical personnel treating both male and female children for rectal damage that resulted from the assault, the inquiry found.
“Sufficient information existed as early as 2006 to warrant action on the possible sexual abuse of minors by (Afghan National Security Forces),” the report said.
But some soldiers were uncertain whether to intervene, confused whether such activities were condoned by the Afghans and “therefore not considered reportable.” The military’s policy and training was “unclear.”
And communications breakdowns — reports viewed as hearsay or made informally — left senior commanders in the dark about the abuse concerns, according to the report. “No specific and permanent CF action was ever taken,” the report says.
It was only after revelations in the media in 2008 that the Canadian Forces, as it was known then, began changing how such situations were handled and launched the inquiry investigation.
The inquiry, which heard testimony from 105 witnesses, says it found no evidence that anyone in the military’s chain of command had ever ordered troops to turn a blind eye to the sexual assault of children.
But it did find evidence that commanders up and down the chain were informed of “possible” sexual activity but that action was limited and that formal reports were never passed up the chain.
For example, on Oct. 3, 2006, a weekly advisory from Afghanistan to the legal adviser for the command leading the Afghan mission said that “possible sexual assaults were taking place in theatre and that a CF policy review was required.”
The report says it’s “clear” that the information on sexual abuse was in the headquarters of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces Command, the unit overseeing the mission. But that message was never passed along to defence legal team or mission commanders for review or action, the report said.
The inquiry found six specific instances in which commanders in Afghanistan were told of possible sexual abuse. In one case, a unit deputy commander sought legal advice about what soldiers should do if they suspect abuse.
In another case, a battle group commander, hearing reports of abuse, issued orders to his subordinates that they were to intervene and to report all incidents.
The report also notes that during this time Canadian soldiers were engaged in a fierce, deadly fight with the Taliban in the Kandahar region and the intensity of the engagement took up the attention of military staff, at the expense of this issue.
“Survival and combat were the primary missions and all other issues were secondary,” the report says.
While the report was completed in 2010, it has taken six years to work its way through the military bureaucracy. Indeed, in the years since its completion, several inquiry members have retired and Canada has ended its military operations in Afghanistan.
The military says the “scope and complexity” of the recommendations were a “significant” factor in the time it took to release the report. And the high tempo of recent operations has strained resources in headquarters.
Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel who is now a lawyer in Ottawa, called the length of inquiry “disappointing.”
The fact that some soldiers deployed in the early days of Canada’s Afghan mission felt conflicted about their response to the abuse allegations raises questions about the leadership.
“The fact that they would not feel comfortable or feel hesitant or somehow uncertain how the chain of command would stand sends a disturbing message,” Drapeau said in an interview.
Officials on Tuesday stressed that the military has not waited for the report’s release to act on its recommendations and direction.
For example, in 2008, Gen. Rick Hillier, then-chief of defence staff, made it clear that troops were “not going to stand by” if they witnessed abuse.
Col. Mark Misener, a commander with the Canadian Army Training and Doctrine centre, said training in ethics, law of armed conflict and rules of engagement has all been improved to give soldiers greater clarity on how they should act.
Those lessons were then reinforced in real-life scenarios. Soldiers training to go to Afghanistan were exposed to scenarios starting in 2009 that had them dealing with reports of sexual abuse, human trafficking and other rights violations they might encounter, he said.
Troops are also taught the cultural practices of the country they are headed to, Misener said. That helps ensure that soldiers are “better trained and prepared to face the challenges of complex environments.”
Abuse report ‘a long time coming, too long,’ says top brass Jonathan Vance
CAF CDS General Jonathan Vance - Photo: Dave Chan
"Many of the recommendations were acted on right away," said Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance, shown here in December, about Tuesday's report.
Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff, spoke to the Star about a newly released report that concludes the military failed to deal effectively with reports of child sexual abuse in Afghanistan by Afghan soldiers and interpreters. This interview was edited and condensed for space.
What is your take-away?
When I became (chief of defence staff) and was briefed that this board was still pending, I placed a very high premium on it getting done quickly, including putting a lot of personal time into reading it, understanding it, and getting it done. It’s been a long time coming, too long in my view. Many of the recommendations were acted on right away. . . . I want to make certain that it endures into all missions and so it becomes a part of what we do.
This report spoke to the nature of conflict today. Not only do you need to be trained in the enemy and warfare but there is a sub-layer of complexity.
It’s a conflicted environment. We were an active combatant in that environment and . . . because of the nature of our operations, we weren’t present and privy to the private acts of Afghans.
To characterize the environment as people kind of witness these acts right in front of us would be dead wrong. That certainly didn’t happen when I was task force commander. We can’t possibly expect all of our soldiers to be trained as international human rights lawyers. That’s not what we’re there for. What we do though is bring with us a very solid set of — and the ability to act on — Canadian values and the law of armed conflict.
You’re confident that between the written orders and beefed-up training that a soldier today would feel empowered to intervene?
A soldier would be able to take a pro-active role, whether that is reporting or whether it’s an actual intervention with the use of deadly force or non-deadly force. Mission-by-mission we make decisions around what is legal and authorized in that particular mission. It’s conceivable that we could be in a place where the use of deadly force may violate not only Canadian law but the law of the land that we are in, but non-deadly force would be perfectly acceptable. We got to make certain that we gear the training of the solider and the rules of engagement and the appropriate orders from me to do what is the right thing. . . . I am confident that our soldiers have an active avenue available to them on all missions.
I’m sure in some cases a soldier feels conflicted, is he imposing a Canadian value?
I don’t feel as conflicted. I spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. Abusing children is not part of their culture. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. That culture tends to celebrate their children. They dote on their children and the abuse of a child is inherently and fundamentally not a part of their culture. I don’t know of any Afghan commander that I worked with that would condone such a thing. I mean they are all family people. They wanted their country to be better. I think this is down into the level of criminal act.